Brave Story: New Traveller Reader Review
For a fleeting ten minutes I thought Brave Story: New Traveller was more than the mere capable retelling of an old tale it would eventually prove to be. I was introduced to the protagonist, Tatsuya, in all his soft-focus dimpled glory. Then came the provocative development: Tatsuya too busy playing his PSP to attend to the needs of his girlfriend, the lovely Miki. The crunch: Miki mysteriously hospitalised while Tatsuya, oblivious, tries for that elusive high score. Moral of the story evident. Mortification the order of the day. Daily Mail rage-o-meter rising. What to ensue?
Just maybe, maybe, the primary colour packaging was all a ruse. I envisaged Tatsuya shaving his head, selling his PSP and working down the docks to pay for Miki's treatment, converting to some particularly virulent religious sect, appearing on national television to plead for information from the public, gradually losing his cute-as-a-button looks as the self-loathing and alcoholism set in. The satirist in the closet was ready for a savage unravelling of the whole fabric of digital escapism. This was to be a game which would rebuff objective commentary, a game which would drive me to the forums not to whine about repetitive battles and generic scenarios but to question, thoroughly and without flinching, why the hell it is I plunge so many of my precious hours into these adolescent melodramas when I could be out there curing tuberculosis and rescuing lost puppies.
Surely it wasn�t so much to ask? Mainstream development is far less conservative than is often asserted by its detractors. There have been- and continue to be- big-budget, high profile satirical games. Perhaps most obviously Rockstar has made a name for itself by parodying an urban cosmos of violence, corruption and paranoia, with each of its three signature cities- Liberty, Vice and San Andreas- having a real-world counterpart. Nintendo�s Paper Mario titles send up many aspects of game culture with uproarious aplomb. Even this curmudgeonlyest of genres, notorious for its reactionary fanbase, has brought its share to western shores with titles like the (admittedly obscure and a bit crap) Okage: Shadow King and, to a lesser degree, the (rather better and better-known) Shadow Hearts series. In light of these and other examples, I had hopes for that there Tatsuya.
And what does the little beggar do but get himself whisked off to a fantasy universe to Right Wrongs, suck medicine herbs and punch goblins, all in an effort to gain an audience with some pansy Goddess of Destiny and hence magically restore Miki to health.
Old Hat (+3 Agility)
The thrill of possibility crumbles away slowly, tantalisingly, like the Jaffa cake you dropped in the bath. Brave Story�s premise, while in most respects so set in its ways you could bend horseshoes around it, wins points for being reminiscent of the internalised narratives of Link�s Awakening and Labyrinth, and there�s a pleasant sense of allegorical intelligence, even- whisper it- irony to the whole endeavour. At one point the chibi-wizard Ropple comments derisively of another character�s tragic history �but his story is so pathetic and/or slightly cliche�. There�s a battle skill called �We�re the Heroes?� Attacks are accompanied by tongue-in-cheek comic strip sound effect panels such as THWACK and BLAM (though sadly not SPANK, PWNAGE or BOO-YAH). These vaguely self-referential twists culminate in a contrived but laudable �play-within-the-play� moment at the finale (make sure you wait for the credits to finish).
But once you get thoroughly embroiled it becomes clear that Game Republic have opted for refinement over introspection. Fortunately, it also becomes clear that they�ve done good. Genres exist because certain combinations of stuff just �work�, and the greater artists are often not those who make earth-shattering reflections on accepted practice, but those who lurk within the cosy, random-battle-ridden dungeons of the familiar, purifying, perfecting- reminding us, in effect, why the whole thing crawled out of the sludge in the first place.
The writing is a timely demonstration to the likes of Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai of how to do a videogame conversion right i.e. it retains the snappiness and variety of the manga whilst never descending into impenetrable fan service. Characters (of which there are initially six playable with more being unlocked on completion) come in various shades of cliché but are well fleshed-out, from squeaky cat-girl Yuno to the classically �misunderstood� villain Rei. The only real sore point is Tatsuya himself, another of the genre�s mute heroes, who has all the moral and emotional sophistication of a can of baked beans.
The engaging dialogue is aided no end by the sumptuous character models, each exquisitely designed and textured and chock-a-block with animate minutiae- rippling cloth and hair, fully-rendered shadows and plausible �acting�, not to mention Yuno�s flicky ears, the object of an unwholesome reverence wherever fans of the game gather together. Barring perhaps the pixel-pushing powerhouses Monster Hunter Freedom and Tekken: Dark Resurrection, Brave Story�s cast are probably the prettiest renditions of their kind on the system (until Crisis Core comes out, anyway) and the battles benefit hugely by it.
Cookie-Cutter (inflicts paralysis)
Ah yes, the battles. In my not-so-humble heavyweight anorak�s (face it, essentially correct) opinion, the best turn-based battle systems are those which shift the emphasis away from individuals with mammoth hit-point totals and correspondingly demented attacks to a more abstract, chess-like affair, underpinned by simple rock-paper-scissors relationships which elaborate in response to a varied enemy roster. Thankfully, Brave Story comes down more on the side of the latter. And for that I can forgive it for the blandness of the structural elements: your classic strength-agility-defence-wisdom stat-grinding, ailments like poison and confusion, elemental and racial modifiers, the familiar balancing-act of soldiers, tanks, healers, magic and support roles. Well-executed is well-executed, dang it, and to hell with the innovators.
All right, look, there are a few bells and whistles. The imaginatively titled �Extra Attack� mechanic, whereby a character will often follow up a finishing move with a blow to the next enemy in line, adds another wafer-thin layer to the tactical mix. �Brave Points�, which are used to perform skills and magic, are accumulated by landing physical attacks, which gears everything towards offensive play.
Then there are the �Unity Attacks�. Essentially super moves performed by certain characters in tandem with the protagonist, they are gradually unlocked depending on whom you bring to the fray with you. Fond of Sogreth, your fat reptilian chum with the father-son complex? You�ll end up with �Bug Strike�, for all your pest-control needs. Develop a taste for Meladee, the eternally recurrent Sexy-Older-Woman? You�ll reap the stupefying rewards of �Desert Rose�.
It helps, again, that everything is so pretty. Encounters are sheer, unadulterated visual over-kill, with a ragbag of dramatic camera angles, lens-flare and enough cinematic slo-mo to give John Woo the shakes. All of it loads astonishingly fast too, despite the much-touted drawbacks of UMD.
Familiarity and his cringing brat Contempt aside, the experience begins to pall slightly once it becomes clear that the difficulty curve has been through a trouser press. I must have been wiped out a grand total of twice in the twenty-five hours it took me to see Brave Story through. Naturally ball-breaking gameplay does not a priori good gameplay make, but it does oblige the player to be creative, to really squeeze the last bit of juice out of the means of combat. While the ability to �Craze� opponents under certain conditions, transmogrifying them into super-size variants who yield additional rewards and experience, provides a limited incentive to experiment, in general it�s too easy to fall back on physical attacks with the odd Unity move for good measure. JRPG n00bs, on the other hand, will welcome the gentler pressure.
Warmed-Over (weak vs. Ice)
They may not be so happy with the tediousness of life outside the combat arena. Towns and dungeons are hangovers from the 16-bit era, the former being stuffed with repetitive NPCs and the latter with simplistic switch puzzles and irritating, irritating dead-ends. Customisation rears its motley head in the form of an accessory crafting system, which is effective enough but lacks the fun-factor of, say, the invention bits in Dark Chronicle.
Then there are the Goalfinch Battles, the bewildered, bewildering offspring of Chocobo-farming and Carnage Heart. Certain groves, grottos and caves throughout the game are populated by these singular birds, but rather than pursue any childhood ornithological interests you�re expected to capture and forcibly combine them, with the colour of each Finch corresponding to an attribute- pecking power, hit-points, etc- in the ensuing meta-bird. Presumably the fusion process is rather uncomfortable (the screeching is a bit of a giveaway) as the products always seem to pop out the other end inordinately pissed off, and thus more than willing to beat the Paxo out of other people�s birds at your behest.
While it won�t keep you up into the early hours the way Tetramaster did, Finch battling isn�t without its satisfactions and could easily soak up an additional ten hours of your time, with item-hunts and the odd sub-quest accounting for a further ten. You can also pit your Finches Ad Hoc against those of your fellow commuter, which sounds like it would be acceptable in a Tokyo tube but will probably result in violent expulsion from humanity if attempted on the Jubilee line at 8am.
The absence of a truly superb example of a genre so stunningly represented on the PSP�s elder siblings has always been a bit of a mystery. It�s not like we�ve lacked for contenders, with the likes of Valhalla Knights and Blade Dancer on one hand and a bevy of solid retro remakes on the other. Sadly, Brave Story doesn�t- quite- mark the turn of the tide. But it�s still the best original JRPG currently available for the system and probably the best overall, whilst falling a little flat against some of the wackier DS offerings and dwindling to insignificance in the shadow of the PS2.
So, to sum up: definitely worth a punt, but don�t expect anything revolutionary. And as for satire, I guess we�ll have to stick with Jack Thompson and his �modest video game proposals� for now.